I finished the book today, and i think it was interesting enough that i write down my impression of it.
There is a lot of historical context about this book, it was written in 1790-93, in France, this period, the Terror, wasn’t really the best thing about French revolution. It seems Paine was one of the numerous intellectual to suffer from the tensions between the different political groups. However, as the content of the book will suggest, it’s far from the only issue he had, because the book didn’t please the christian churches, and in particular the catholic church.
The book is written in two parts, the first one was written very fast, in a few days, because the author suspected he would not be free, or alive, for very long at that point (and he was right to suppose that, as he was arrested hours after finishing it). And the second part, which is more documented, was written after he was let out of prison, and recovered from the bad health state his time in prison had put him in.
The book treat of christianity, and of the bible mainly, denouncing them as false and essentially bad for humanity. He however strongly express his belief in a god, which he calls deism, the particularity of his beliefs i’ll discuss further.
The quality of the arguments vary in the two books, the first one having been written without a bible for reference, it’s mostly about moral arguments, and general opinion about some parts of the bible. The second part is more like a systematic destruction of all the parts of the Bible, from Genesis, to Epistles. Most books get their authority or authenticity properly shredded, and their content demonstrated incoherent or plain immoral. The few books that are sparred are hinted as possibly of different origins, and conveying a different message, if any message, than of the rest.
Aside from denouncing christianity, and judaism as well as islam as wrong by analysis of the books and stories that are essential parts of their doctrine, the author advocate for deism. Deism, at least the particular flavor of it he advocates for, is the belief in a god, creator of the world, that would inspire in us morals, and would show us the right way to live, only by the creation, no revelation, no prophets, no “word of god”, no miracles (breaking the rule he created wouldn’t make sense) the creation is both the only needed proof, and the only message this god will transmit to us. It’s our task to study the world and understand its principles, if we want to understand more about this creator.
This is an interesting point of view, that would be hard to reject fully, such an hypothesis could be true, there is just no way of testing it, if the world is the only expression of such god, then there is no difference between such god, and the world (or universe, because Paine do talk about other possible worlds and people), then there is no way to make a difference, there is no unnatural to speak about, because all of it is nature. But this lead for me to two questions, the first one being, why is such a distinction (if we are to call something “God” instead of “the universe”, this entity must have some distinct property) necessary? The second one, if this God wants us to observe the nature for an understanding of morals, then there is a lot of ugly to look at in nature, of course, some animals demonstrate moral behavior, but for a lot (if not most), of them, their very way of living involve destroying other animals, let alone humans, sometime with unnecessary violence. Also, Occam’s razor would certainly dismiss this God notion as unnecessary.
However, i can see a practical (if not tactical) aim to such a position, it could be a more acceptable form of atheism, for people which are afraid of such a thing, at a time where the church was so powerful, it could be an interesting middle ground. The violence of the attack Paine does on christianity don’t seem to indicate he was doing it to protect his life, though, because it’s self-evident by reading the book, that it will not make anybody happy in this regard.
All in all, i found this book to be very interesting, even if i don’t live in a very religious environment, and i had already a good number of arguments in my bag if needed, this added a lot of background for it, and provided a lot of interesting historical references, for example, learning about Constantine and Faust arguing about the authenticity of the new testament as soon as the fifth century. There is something to read a 200 years old book, and find it refers to texts up to a thousands year older (not counting the bible, of which of course some parts are even older, even if their age is rarely, if ever, the one of the things they describe).
Rating: 4 stars out of 5